Space Experts: Netflix’s ‘Space Force’ Is Very, Very Dumb
“Space Force,” a new comedy series mocking Trump’s Space Force and reuniting “The Office” creator Greg Daniels and star Steve Carell, does not pass muster with the space community.
The U.S. Space Force, President Donald Trump’s new military command for orbital warfare, literally began as a joke.
“Maybe we need a new force— we’ll call it the ‘Space Force,’” Trump mused at a campaign rally in San Diego in February 2018. “I was not really serious. And then I said, what a great idea. Maybe we’ll have to do that.”
Billions of dollars later, Space Force became a real, and really pointless, thing. An entirely redundant new bureaucracy with no clear sense of purpose and a logo that the Pentagon apparently copied from Star Trek.
So many space experts were excited when, in early 2019, Netflix announced a new Space Force comedy series, produced by The Office creator Greg Daniels and starring Steve Carell, who played The Office’s bumbling boss Michael Scott. At last, someone would capture the absurdity of the real-life orbital military service. “Space! Comedy! Michael Scott in uniform! What’s not to like?” quipped Seth Shostak, an astronomer with the California-based SETI Institute.
Now that Space Force’s first season has dropped on Netflix, what do Shostak and other scientists, space-policy experts and former military space-operators think of the show?
Meh seems to be the consensus. U.S. Space Force begs for satirical treatment. But maybe not this satirical treatment. “Steve Carell deserves better, and so does the public,” Shostak told The Daily Beast.
The show, while funny and even heartwarming at times, lacks the courage of its convictions. “I think it would have been better if they went full-on dark-comedy satire,” Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force space operator who is now an expert at the Secure World Foundation in Colorado, told The Daily Beast.
Early in the pilot episode, it might seem like “full-on dark-comedy satire” actually is Daniels’ intent with Space Force. One of the very first jokes involves the secretary of defense, played by Dan Bakkedahl of Veep fame, explaining the origins of the show’s version of Space Force.
The show’s president, an unnamed Trump, is worried about his Twitter account. What if someone takes down the satellite carrying his broadband internet? America needs a space force to protect the satellites… and the president’s tweets.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Carrell’s just-promoted Gen. Mark Naird, snicker. But the defense secretary is serious—and he taps Naird to lead the new force. A year later Naird is at his secret base in Colorado, juggling his chaotic family life, a staff of cranky scientists, skeptical lawmakers and a resident Russian “observer,” all while struggling to take seriously his new role commanding a decidedly unserious enterprise.
Naird’s solution: double down on new space weapons, and hope they don’t blow up on launch.
“Sadly, there actually is something darkly funny about the president deciding on this macho name for a set of missions that are primarily about keeping satellites in good working order and managing traffic,” Laura Grego, a space expert with the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Daily Beast.
“And how creating a Space Force bureaucracy, building a base, giving the general a seat on the Joint Chiefs creates pressure to go all-out on weapons, instead,” Grego added. “Weapons which are counterproductive and make space and Earth less safe, by the way. There’s a lot you can do with that, but they barely do!”
After its opening scenes, Space Force veers away from satire and toward broad comedy. The first episode only briefly probes the money-gobbling stupidity of the space-military-industrial-political complex. “The joke that landed hardest for me was the one about how much a failed weapon cost,” Grego said.
That bit is a highlight of the pilot episode. An experimental anti-satellite rocket explodes on the launch pad. Naird is aghast. How much money just went up in flames? Naird asks a U.S. Army liaison officer played by Roy Wood, Jr. “Four,” the officer replies. “Million?” Naird asks. “Four middle schools,” the officer says.
But for much of its first episode, Space Force is mostly concerned with Naird’s busybody routine and the usual workplace infighting, backstabbing and reluctant friends-making that you can find in many other, sharper shows (The Office, for one). The longest scene in the episode is Naird soothing himself with a dance routine set to The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo.”
You never see that kind of sympathetic attention to character in, say, Veep, the HBO presidential satire that ended last year. Veep was too busy skewering national politics and its vicious practitioners to make you fall in love with any of the main characters.
But Space Force is no Veep, Nick Pope, who investigated UFOs for the U.K. Ministry of Defense, told The Daily Beast. Veep is dense satire that gets only darker on rewatch. Space Force, by contrast, “may suffer from being over-analyzed,” Pope said.
After giving up on the idea of Space Force as biting satire, the experts said they generally enjoyed the show as a vehicle for Carell. “Carell and the producers had the sense to distill it down to something more like a portrait of a late-career executive who may or may not owe his job to the Peter Principle and who’s dealing with a stack of family and professional crises,” Roush said. “Under the bluster, he turns out to have an intriguing human side.”
“I think the show is supposed to be more like M*A*S*H, with a thin layer of slapstick that makes the pathos endurable,” Wade Roush, a space historian, told The Daily Beast.
P.W. Singer, an analyst at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the author of the technothriller Burn-In, said he enjoyed seeing so many funny actors in Space Force, even if Space Force isn’t the kind of funny that says anything meaningful about America in 2020. “So there is the wonderful irony that much like the real Space Force, it has good people in it, but is not the right framework for them and thus not the best use of their time.”